Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Macau: Hits & Misses

We managed to squeeze in a stopover in Macau at the end of our stay in Hong Kong. A 40 minute ferry ride away, this gaming city packed with tourists is charming in its own unique way with its Portugese influences evident from the architechture through to its food.

The Portugese egg tarts from Macau are worth the trip alone - buttery, flaky pastry housing eggy hot custard... these delicious bites live up to the hype provided by foodies who manage to pull themselves away from the many casinos to sample the local fare.

What was disappointing however were the Macau grilled pork chop buns. We sampled the ones made at Tai Lei, one of the most reputable on the island. The long queue starts at around 3pm which is when the buns go on sale - I was expecting lots given its obvious popularity. But I was unimpressed. This snack is basically a greasy slab of pork chop housed in a baked bun. Not particulary interesting... not particularly good... and definitely not worth the particularly long wait.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Hong Kong: Freshness Burger

It seems almost silly to be writing about hamburgers while we’re on the subject of Hong Kong… but Freshness Burger, a Japanese burger chain that has become hugely popular in Hong Kong (but not yet available in other parts of Asia), is really good.

The classic Cheeseburger is my favourite… an incredibly juicy patty (watch that white shirt), fresh lettuce, tomato, onion and grilled cheese… the burgers here are simple but very well made. There is also a wide range of interesting drinks available (Think matcha lattes, yuzu sodas, etc) which makes this burger chain a breath of fresh air in the not so fresh world of dodgy fast food joints.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Hong Kong: The Way Things Were

The oldest teahouse in Hong Kong is hard to get into… there was a two hour waiting time during peak lunch hour in order to secure a table (which we made full use of by snacking around the area). Was it worth the wait? Well… yes and no.

The dim sum here isn’t outstanding in today’s standards where many restaurants have made it an art - offering freshly made cooked morsels with interesting twists cooked to order. What you get instead is a taste of what yum cha in Hong Kong used to taste and feel like. Traditional favourites of steamed prawn dumplings (Har Gow), steamed pork dumplings (Siu Mai) and steamed rice in lotus leaves are on offer here.

What you also get is great service – the waiters here have all done their jobs for a long, long time (some have spent their entire working life here) and it shows in their attention and unobtrusive care while you dine.

Sure the dumpling casings could have been a little thinner and the egg tarts could have had a more flaky pastry… but for a restaurant that gives you a dying bit of history and looks after you while you have it, Luk Yu Teahouse may just be worth a visit.

Luk Yu Teahouse
24-26 Stanley Street
Central, Hong Kong

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Hong Kong: Chinese Morsels

There’s a lot that I like about Wang Fu, located in Central. The food is fast, hot, tasty and affordable. This unpretentious eatery is a great place to go to if you’re craving for Chinese dumplings… the pork, scallop and yellow chive dumplings were great and definitely worth coming back for. We were somewhat disappointed with the noodle dishes we ordered, which lacked flavour. There is however an extensive menu of Northern Chinese bites which I’ll love to try next time I’m back in town.

Wang Fu
98A Wellington Street
Central, Hong Kong

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Hong Kong: Myths & Legends

There are some establishments that have achieved legendary status for their food. Some manage to retain the edge that awarded them this status… others become commercially successful but lose that special appeal in the process. Yung Kee is unfortunately one of those restaurants that fall in the latter category. Highly awarded and highly acclaimed – this eatery is recommended in gourmet magazines, visited by Michelin starred chefs and lauded for its roasted goose, its star attraction.

On our visit, we were not only disappointed with the food – but also with the service. The roasted goose was decent – but not something I would come rushing back for… the skin was not as delightfully crisp as many have raved about and the accompanying rice… overcooked and mushy (one of my pet peeves). The century eggs here however are worth a try – very fresh (if that can be said of century eggs to begin with) – the yolk is deliciously creamy and definitely not something you’ll get in commercially made versions.

But what was most disappointing was the service – for a highly acclaimed restaurant, service was unpersonable, short and at times plain apathetic. My personal bad experience at Yung Kee probably won’t stop the hordes from packing it in to this popular restaurant… but its reminded me of a simple fact - that legends can sometimes be myths as well.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Hong Kong: One Hit Wonder

One of my favourite places to eat whenever I’m in Hong Kong is Gow Kei Beef Brisket. Tucked away in the charismatic back streets of Sheung Wan… this place does only one thing – beef brisket. But that doesn’t stop crowds of regular patrons and curious foodies from coming at all times throughout the day to sample two basic variations of this dish – beef broth or curried stew. You even get to choose from egg or rice noodles to accompany your bowl of heaven.

The beef broth is pure robust bovine goodness and is great spiked with a splash of red wine vinegar that you help yourself to at the table. The curried stew (order the beef tendon version if it hasn’t sold out) has fantastic depth and has a surprisingly strong spicy kick that’s sure to work up a sweat. The brisket here is wonderfully tender and a real joy to eat. Both versions are winners due to the brilliant beef stock used in their preparation.

One thing you’ll notice when you visit Gow Kei is how despite the crowds, the restaurant is strangely tranquil and quiet. Instead of the loud chatter you get in other eateries around Hong Kong, all you hear is silent slurping and a sense of appreciation and reverence for the dish that has made this one of the most highly recommended local eateries in Hong Kong.
21 Gough Street
Sheung Wan

Thursday, December 25, 2008

My Christmas Dinner

Roast organic aged rump marinated in rosemary, garlic and wholegrain mustard plus a roasted whole turkey… that was my contribution to our Christmas dinner last year. I remember rushing around making orders for the vacuum packed meats from my butcher in Perth so that I could fly with them back to Singapore… Just in time to cook up and share in a Christmas meal with my family.

Ever since my brother, sister and I started developing a love for cooking, we made it a point to prepare dinner at this very special time of the year when we all gathered back in Singapore to be with mum and dad. Not all our attempts were successes… and this was the case with the Christmas dinner of 2007. My turkey was slightly overdone and my roast beef… ever so under. But – it didn’t seem to matter… I remember my dad thoroughly enjoying the tough white meat and remarking how tasty the beef was.

You see - even back then we were already suspecting that it would be our last Christmas meal together as a family… Dad was starting to really deteriorate in health and had been told of the relapse of his cancer by doctors. And so – whilst the quality of the food was probably lacking… the appreciation for it was overwhelming. Food at that Christmas dinner was not just about how perfectly everything was done… but how perfect it was that we were all partaking of it at our family table. That night, we remembered stories that made us laugh… and for a moment, forgot about illness and suffering.

Fast forward 12 months to Christmas Eve and I find myself on a flight with my mum to Perth where we will join my brother and sister. Perhaps we have all been a little preoccupied of late… but even right now our Christmas dinner menu still remains unwritten. And whilst my dad won’t be joining us at the dinner table this year (he’s probably having a heavenly feast beyond our wildest imaginations)… my wish is that our Christmas meal will just be like our last… a blessing we’ll always remember.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Hong Kong: Old School Passion

Long time readers of this blog (bless you for your patience) will know that I have a soft spot for perfectly cooked rice. It was for this reason that I made it a personal mission to seek out the famous Hong Kong dish of Claypot Rice (煲仔飯) on a recent trip there to attend a close friend's wedding.

Wing Hup Sing (永和成) in Sheung Wan has made quite a name for itself for its interpretation of this dish. This family run restaurant is as old school as they come - and helmed by the grandfather of the family who first developed the technique of baking his claypot rice in a baker's oven (given his background as a Chinese pastry chef).

The most popular dish at this humble restaurant is the shredded beef and raw egg claypot rice... and it is good. Piping hot with perfectly cooked grains - the heat from the rice cooks the egg which is mixed through. But claypot rice purists be warned - because this version is not cooked on a charcoal stove but is instead baked, there is no charred burnt crust at the bottom of the pot which some may find disappointing.

But regardless of which school you come from, you will be impressed by this establishment's dedication to perfectly cooked rice. The founder of the restaurant is known to request patrons not to use a spoon when they first dig into their meal as he feels that just cooked rice is slightly moist and may become mushy if eaten with a spoon straight away.

On my visit, a regular customer was overheard to be discussing with the owner at what point sauce should be added to the rice during the cooking process. This may not be the best claypot rice that I've ever tasted - but as far as passion and dedication goes - its one place I'll definitely be coming back to whenever I'm back in Hong Kong.

Wing Hup Sing
G/F, 113-115 Jervois Street, Sheung Wan
(Closed on Sundays)

Monday, December 22, 2008

Miyajima: Thoughtful dining

Miyajima is an island off Hiroshima and is well known for its incredible autumn colours in November. This means hordes of tourists in the daytime who come to take in the amazing colours of red, orange and yellow splashed across the palette of this beautiful island.

We were fortunate enough to stay the night at Iwaso, the oldest and most highly regarded ryokan on the island - which meant that we were able to experience this picturesque place in all its tranquility when night fell. It also meant that we were treated to the most incredible kaiseki dinner at the ryokan in our own private dining room.

This meal was simply stunning and a perfect example of what a great kaiseki meal means - an art that balances the tastes, textures, colours and appearances of food using only fresh seasonal ingredients to reflect the identity of the locality which it is served.

The presentation of each of the 14 or so courses made you feel like you were unwrapping a present at each course, culminating in the highlight of the meal which was an individual pot of mushroom flavoured rice that was left to boil at the table at the beginning of your meal. This was perfectly timed to be perfectly cooked when you reached the end of your courses.

Dining the kaiseki way really awakens you to an appreciation of ingredients and the thought that the chef puts into ensuring that the diner enjoys a meal that satisfies all your senses... and it proves without a doubt that at the end of the day - it really is the thought that counts.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Japanese Fast Food

Japan shows the rest of the world that is dominated by golden arches and an old man in a white suit that fast food can be both delicious and good for you.

Throughout our trip travelling from Osaka down to Kyushu on the shinkansen, we were amazed at the quality of food on the go in Japan. Bento boxes, sandwiches, salads – everything was super fresh, well prepared and didn’t give leave us feeling like McGreasy, McGuilty or McQueasy.

Best of all - fast food in Japan is also beautifully presented (as is everything else in this country obsessed with perfection). Call me crazy - but I'll be happy to be labelled a fast food junkie in this amazing country...

Fukuoka Part 3: Fine Street Dining

Imagine getting the freshest and best ingredients simply prepared by your chef before your eyes… being cramped up in a little counter table on the streetside… total strangers squashed up right next to you… cold beer… loud conversations… and you basically have yatai… street dining Fukuoka style.

We had a fantastic meal at Tsukasa - a well known yatai run by the lady chef and her family of helpers. She does all the cooking which is really impressive… basically handling the grill as well as the deep fryer, she whips up the most succulent dishes to go with your choice of beverage.

Grilled beef tongue on a bed of onions was so simple… but so perfect in every way… as was the grilled shitake mushrooms seasoned only with sea salt. The mixed grilled dish of pork, squid, chicken gizzards and beef rolled with shiso leaves were great and we’ll never forget the massive local oysters that were simply barbecued and served with a wedge of lemon.

A meal at a yatai doesn’t come cheap – but if you enjoy great food in unpretentious surroundings and hearty communal eating – this is the place to come when you’re ever in Fukuoka.

Fukuoka Part 2: Ippudo

This ever popular ramen specialist has two basic versions of this dish – Akamaru (a richer tasting broth with spicy miso paste and garlic oil), and Shiromaru (a lighter tasting version). They also serve tiny bite sized gyozas which are rumoured to have been made smaller so they can be easily eaten by the dainty women of Fukuoka (which didn’t stop us from shoving these crispy morsels into our mouths like ravenous barbarians).

You get a great vibe from entering this place, loud slurping echoing from the communal dining tables and the satisfied faces all round. The tonkotsu ramen here is great – the rich creamy broth enveloping the thin and firm egg noodles cooked perfectly al dente. There is also a wide range of condiments laid out on the table to spice up your bowl of noodles to your liking. Don’t forget to order kadaema (extra noodles) if you’re still a little peckish and still have broth in your bowl.

Ippudo and Ichiran (previously blogged) are both highly regarded for tonkotsu ramen – both becoming successful chains around Japan (and recently even in New York). My personal preference? Ichiran still does it for me with their addictive special sauce and a more balanced tasting broth (Ippudo’s has a much stronger and richer taste which can get a little overwhelming).

But judge for yourself if you’re ever in Fukuoka – and have both a few times (like I did)… just to be sure.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Fukuoka Part 1: My death row meal

I’ve always wondered what final meal would be – logically it has to be something pretty special to satisfy unfulfilled desires and ignite memories of how great good food can make you feel. Well - I’m happy to say that my current pick for nourishment before walking the green mile would have to be tonkotsu ramen from Ichiran in the beautiful city of Fukuoka.
Dining at Ichiran is a pretty intimate experience. You start at the front entrance by purchasing little meal coupons of items you would like to order (ramen, extra sliced pork, boiled egg, etc) from a vending machine (another Japanese obsession). You then proceed to pick up an order sheet and proceed to your dining booth. Yes… that’s right, eating here is strictly a personal affair – you sit at an individual cubicle facing a curtain which is lifted only for your order to be served. No distractions from conversations, noisy diners or even peering wait staff… its just you – and a piping hot bowl of ramen.

You then customise your meal (eg. Strength of flavour, amount of oil in soup, texture of noodles, amount of garlic, etc) by circling accordingly on the order sheet, press the order button and await as your slip is taken into the kitchen.
What arrives is nothing short of life changing experience – an incredibly rich and creamy pork bone soup with al dente noodles and sliced belly pork, this dish put Kyushu on the noodle map of Japan. The soup here really awakens the senses and the uncontrolled loud slurping of the perfectly cooked noodles reduces you to a very primal state – savouring every moment in your little own ramen heaven. What really makes this dish is also the special sauce which has a complex chilli base and 30 other ingredients. Mindblowing.

As far as death row meals go – this one really hits the spot. How good was it? I returned every single day for the three days I was in Fukuoka for this dish. Some may think this excessive… but like they say - you only live once.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Osaka Part 4: Breakfast in the Rising Sun

If I had to eat one breakfast for the rest of my life – it would have to be the Japanese way. With the staples of a steaming bowl of quality koshikari rice, soothing miso soup, pickled vegetables and a grilled fish item – you get all the nutrition you need to ease you into your day without the grease and guilt that accompanies a breakfast fry up.

During this trip to Japan, we were blown away by the welcome meal to the day in hotels, ryokans and bento boxes on shinkansens. The highlight for me would have to be in Osaka at the Dojima hotel where we spent two nights.

Breakfast here next to a serene Japanese garden is a beautiful thing – aside from the staples previously mentioned, the breakfast tray was garnished with other tasty morsels, including hiyyakko tofu, a delicious poached egg in a yuzu infused dashi stock and the main event, a melt in your mouth wagyu beef sukiyaki. Everything was delicately balanced, stunningly presented and thoughtfully put together.

You finish a Japanese breakfast with a zen like sense of fulfilment. Knowing that you’ve fed your body the freshest ingredients packed with nutrition and having it taste darn good at the same time is just so satisfying… and at the beginning of the day that’s always going to be something worth waking up to.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Osaka Part 3: Ordinary Osaka

What visit to Osaka can be complete without tasting two of its most famous exports – Takoyaki and Okonomiyaki. Just like the inhabitants of the city that created them, these tasty morsels are colourful, down to earth and completely inseparable from icy cold beer.

Takoyaki is best eaten piping hot – the best ones house a creamy centre with a secret combination of vegetables and fresh octopus. Smothered in either home made shoyu sauce or mayonnaise (or even both) and topped with bonito flakes – this is great snack food that was a great pick me up after a long day of shopping.

Okonomiyaki can be found all over town – we visited Chibo, a well established chain that still packs in the crowds after its many years of operation. Here the dish is prepared by a chef in front of your eyes and then transferred to your own tabletop hot plate where you add as much condiments as you like. From the more traditional kurobuta pork to mentaiko (spicy cod roe) cream okonomiyaki… you can opt to top yours off with a bucketload of negi (spring onions) and tamago (fried egg sunny side up).

You can also choose to have the traditional version which is made of batter or one with one that is made from yakisoba – the choice is completely yours… which makes this a very fun dining option.

Sizzling hot food with crispy cold beer – Osaka brings it to the very basics of a good night out… and frankly - what more could anyone ask for?

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Osaka Part 2: Love at first bite

Sometimes you just know… and this was certainly the case when I had the very best example of yoshoku (Japanese adaptations of Western dishes) in Osaka. This charming eatery that has been around for over 60 years makes your heart leap when you taste their unpretentious dishes that are packed with flavour and depth.

Their famous cabbage meat roll probably has some origins from Russian food – but it is distinctly a Japanese adaptation with an out of world combination of sauces – a demi glace sauce that has been stewed for at least a week over a charcoal stove on one half and a house made curry sauce on the other. The result? Comfort food that teases and satisfies you, all at the same time.
The hambaaga steak served with a side of spaghetti, garden salad and topped with a fried egg was also delicious – married together by the cherubic demi-glace sauce.
We also tried the restaurant’s cream korroke which was delightfully crispy on the outside and lusciously creamy on the inside. The filling was what dreams are made of, with hints of cinnamon and moreish spices.
The cotlette kareraisu is perfectly crispy pork cutlet served on top of a bed of rice and smothered with the restaurant’s famous curry sauce. The curry here is fruity, spicy and really really good… nothing at all like the packet paste varieties that have become so common outside of Japan and dare I say, served under the guises of house made curries in restaurants.
But what sealed the deal was the hayashi raisu. Basically a beef stew… this dish doesn’t immediately prepare you for the taste sensation that just hits you. The sauce is incredibly complex and has so much depth that you need to take time enjoy this one. Savoury, sweet, tangy, rich… becoming apparent with each satisfying mouthful.
Yoshoku may not be traditional Japanese food - but the execution, attention to detail and balance of flavours is without doubt something only the Japanese could have done - to turn the ordinary into something truly extraordinary.

Maruyoshi Grill
1-6-72 Abeno-sujo, Abeno-ku, Osaka
5 mins walk from Exit 12 of Tennoji station
Tel: 06-6649-3566

Friday, November 21, 2008

Osaka Part 1: Oh My Omuraisu

One of the most well known creations out of Osaka is Omuraisu - or fried rice wrapped up in an egg omelette. And what better way to understand this simple but utterly delicious dish than to find the original restaurant that created it - Hokkyokusei in Nishi-shinsaibashi.

Around 1925, a customer of this iconic restaurant with a weak stomach would come on a daily basis to have omelette and rice. One day, the owner decided to mix things up a bit and stir fried some rice with ketchup, and wrapped it up in a thin egg omlette - thereby giving birth to the every popular dish.

Today, Omuraisu at Hokkyokusei comes in many variations - from rice fried in dry curry, to oyster fried rice to the ever popular original - chicken fried rice. What is common is the perfectly cooked omelette that neatly envelopes the piping hot rice, and served with a delicious sauce (depending on the variation ordered).

My personal favourite was the oyster Omuraisu - incredibly fresh oysters incorporated into rice stir fried in soy sauce. But what made it all the more unforgettable is the tradition and history that comes with dining in this establishment, scoffing down this unpretentious but truly tasty dish next to a peaceful garden courtyard. Perfect...


2-7-27 Nishi-shinsaibashi, Chuo-ku, Osaka
5 min walk from Exit 7 of Shinsaibashi Subway Station
Tel: 06-6211-7829

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Going to Japan: Plane & Simple

Just arrived in Osaka today from a red eye flight from Singapore, ready to embark on a 10 day journey through the Southern part of Japan.

I'm not afraid to admit it - planning for this trip consisted mostly of researching for must eats in this gastronomic wonderland... and I have already tasted a few winners in my first few hours here. But the earliest wake up call for my taste buds started surprisingly of all places... cruising at 30,000 feet with breakfast on the plane.

Don't get me wrong - I hate airplane meals with a passion and often leave their stomach churning creations untouched. More often than not, I order the meal for the same reason many buy a lottery ticket - simply for the "what if?".

But I was blown away by the excellent breakfast on my flight into Osaka this morning. In the spirit of the land of the rising Sun, a beautiful bento box was served with nine courses immaculately presented. Each was unique in colour, flavour and texture... heck, even the accompanying miso soup was made with fresh clams!

Put plane and simply, the Japanese just do it better...

Sunday, November 16, 2008

China Clubbing

China Club in Hong Kong is a retro-chic Shanghai themed restaurant that is strictly members only. A highly successful concept there - making business dining and wining both exclusive and very sexy. Thus, it was with high hopes that the same establishment was transplanted in Singapore back in late 2001.

This restaurant has all the right ingredients - the impeccably designed space with dark wood furniture, high ceilings and quality chinaware (all embossed with the club's red star emblem), housed atop the 52nd floor of the Capital Tower in Singapore's Central Business District. The views from the restaurant are spectacular and the service is spot on.

Whilst it doesn't boast an inventive dim sum menu that we sampled for a late lunch... most items here are well executed and hard to fault. The pork buns were fluffy with a deliciously sweet char siew filling... the vegetable crystal dumplings with its crunchy filling and chewy exterior provided a great contrast in textures... the steamed carrot cake was perfectly light and the pork trotters stewed in black vinegar and quail eggs... simply divine.

But surprisingly, I was told that the restaurant has not been doing well since it was established - as a matter of fact we were only one of three other tables dining for a Sunday lunch in the expansive restaurant.

Clever packaging, decent food, good service, great views - what's not to love? Well for one, being a members only establishment does have its pitfalls - you only cater to those who care to fork out for membership and a monthly subscription fee (that isn't cheap) just to gain access to the restaurant. And for that price - I better hope the food is outrageously spectacular.

Maybe Singaporeans are more discerning in terms of what they pay for as compared to their Hong Kong counterparts... but for the sake of China Club, I sure hope they let down that velvet rope just a little so that exclusivity does not prevent more from enjoying a fine dining experience.

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